"Rainier Lets Loose Again - Scientists are There"

Thursday, August 16, 2001

LONGMIRE -- Mud and car-sized boulders came tumbling down Mount Rainier again yesterday, the result of warmer-than-usual weather and a reminder to those who live and play in the volcano's shadow of how dangerous their big neighbor can be. Several hikers were in the area of Comet Falls on Van Trump Creek -- one of the most popular hikes in the Park -- when yesterday's flows came crashing through. "It was a very exciting time for them -- a lot of debris, dust, loud noise," said Chief Ranger Jill Hawk, who had sent her staff in to round up people who'd gone to the area to see damage from Tuesday night's debris flows.

Along the Nisqually River at Elbe, 22-year-old Crystal Rolf was "scared to death" when people from the Fire Department drove through town Tuesday night with a bullhorn shouting at people to pack up and leave. "My parents were gone," she said yesterday, back at the family espresso stand. She gathered up her 12-year-old brother, Trent, and with boyfriend Mike Hogan and "the town dog," Homer, drove north to higher ground in Eatonville. "I wasn't sure what was going on," said Hogan, 23. "They said, 'Get out!'"While the debris flows Tuesday and yesterday spooked local residents and hikers, no injuries were reported.

Scientists, however, were happy to get a rare look at powerful natural forces in action. "This is not something you get to see every day," said Tom Sisson, of Menlo Park, Calif. Sisson is a U.S. Geological Survey volcano expert who has been studying the mountain's history the past eight summers. Sisson was marveling over a video just taken by USGS scientists as they flew over Rainier by helicopter. The group had gone to see what remained of Tuesday night's debris flow. Instead, scientists saw a second torrent of mud and boulders.

Scientists say this week's events were triggered when water trapped under or in the Kautz Glacier broke loose, creating a stream barely a foot or two deep and not more than a yard or two across. The flow got serious when the ground it flowed over was not frozen and broke loose to join the parade. Cynthia Gardner, another USGS volcanologist, said the debris flows were technically called “lahars” -- mudslides often caused by intense rainfall or super-heated flows that melt snow and ice rapidly. But Gardner hesitated to use the word lahar in this case, because of its "association with a big event" at the mountain. A huge lahar roared off Rainier more than 5,000 years ago and traveled all the way to Puget Sound, burying everything in its path to depths of 25 to 100 feet. This week's debris slides were "a very, very, very small event," Gardner said. Last winter's unusually low snowfall contributed to the current debris flow. There was simply less snow to absorb the summer's melting ice.

Above the mountain yesterday, scientists and their video camera caught the second muddy cascade from its beginning at a spot midway up the Kautz Glacier near the 9,000-foot level of the 14,411-foot peak. From there, they traced it tearing through a ridge that separates the Kautz from an ice cluster known as the Van Trump Glaciers. It then boiled down a canyon that spilled over a 140-foot drop known as Comet Falls and roared on to the Paradise Road bridge at Christine Falls. The spectacle finally dissipated in the Nisqually River flats more than 3 miles below, 2 miles short of Mount Rainier National Park headquarters at Longmire.

USGS scientist Carolyn Driedger of the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver said Mount Rainier has produced dozens of similar debris flows in the last 30 years, most of them relatively harmless. Twenty-six came from the South Tahoma Glacier; the Kautz and Nisqually glaciers have divided barely a dozen between them. Debris flows aren't to be trifled with. As the residents of the Nisqually and Puyallup river valleys could attest yesterday, emergency-service agencies were taking no chances Tuesday night as the mountain's latest debris flow let loose in the dark.

The warning signals and calls for evacuation went out quickly after Park rangers heard the sounds of spilling water and rocks that meant something wasn't right. It was the agencies' first test since a weeklong, federally fundedmountain-evacuation training session was held in May. Minutes after a ranger heard some rumbling and crashing near Comet Falls Tuesday night, the pagers of emergency coordinators went off. Search-and-rescue teams and swift-water dive teams raced to assigned checkpoints. American Red Cross workers prepared to open shelters. The Roy Fire Department pulled all its engines out of its firehouse and the Pierce County Sheriff's Office set up tents and tactical-communication buses. Alarms in the Puyallup and Carbon rivers -- the likeliest paths for mudflows -- showed no activity, and scientists quickly pinpointed the debris flow to the Nisqually River -- which flows west of the mountain, emptying into south Puget Sound between Tacoma and Olympia. Initially, officials thought the Van Trump Glacier had had an "outburst," which is a sudden release of water that's been pooling inside a glacier.

Officials have been particularly sensitive to potential eruptions of Mount Rainier after a computer simulation conducted in May showed the region isn't prepared for one. The simulation indicated as many as 5,000 people could be killed in an eruption.

Based on the smoothness of the operation, Pierce County officials said they are ready for a bigger mountain event.

No rush, say those who live near Rainier.

Evacuation notices went out in Orting, too, although Orting was nowhere near the Nisqually River. Darrell and Leigh Place were snuggled in for the night when a friend called to say "turn on the TV." The Places operate a beauty salon on one of the town's primary evacuation routes.

"But we heard nothing until that phone call," Darrell Place said. "That worries me."

While the Orting alert was cancelled within the hour, the Places say it's time for re-thinking the process.

"By the time our mayor (Sam Colorossi) got on TV to say everything was over," Leigh Place said, "people were running down the street saying lava was pouring out the side of Mount Rainier, and people were leaving town. When I walked the dog this morning, they were still gone."

©2001, 2004 Scott & Rachel Kimler